Preschool Should Be Less School and More Play? The First Evidence-Based Parenting Blog Carnival

Desks, letter books and math worksheets in preschool. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure out preschool is no longer about learning to sit on the circle rug without touching the kid on the next color. Today's early childhood education only vaguely resembles my own brief stint at Lolliopop Nursery where I fondly recall eating cookies and playing house.  My mother-in-law still refers to my husband's brief stint in playschool. Along with play, the cozy nursery school has been largely replaced by preschool, a fitting description of the increasingly structured academic lessons, assignments and even homework awaiting young children.

Over the past few decades the traditional emphasis on social-cognitive and emotional development has lost ground to specific skills and knowledge not so much instilled but taught by the teacher. Translated to kids in the classroom, the message goes something like this: kids, hang up the princess costume, put down the blocks, now it's time for some real learning. My son's pre-K teacher couldn't have made this distinction any clearer during our parent-teacher conference when she reported my four year-old needed to learn "school was for learning and not playing."

From Kumon for toddlers, Leap Frog, Brain Academy, Baby Einstein, teaching babies to read to President Obama's call for universal preschool evidence abounds of a strong belief in early academics. Our current love affair with preschool as school rests on the premise children greatly benefit from learning phonics, reading and math in a structured, academic environment as opposed to a more unstructured, play-oriented one.  

How smart is that?
Preschool as we've come know it might not be so smart after all.  

Early academics -  contrary to the fast-track mentality of preschools, toy companies, tutoring programs and Tiger moms everywhere - might actually hamper learning. Despite the heavy emphasis on the ABCs and 1-2-3s, there are hints young children benefit more from less structured, less academic learning environments where they are free to explore, create and basically solve problems. Benefits range from self-control, working memory, curiosity and creativity if not outright academic achievement.

Consider a 2007 study of at-risk children published in Science that directly linked a play-based program, Tool of the Mind, to improved executive function (e.g, self-control, working memory), skills critical to future academic achievement and perhaps even more important general life success. Research directly comparing a play versus academic curriculum is difficult to pull off for a variety of logistical and methodological reasons so the evidence on that front remains all too limited or mixed for easy conclusions. 
Tantalizing evidence of the power of play (i.e. open-ended learning) and the downside of more academic, structured programs in which teachers deliver information comes from research in the lab. 

Does traditional teaching hamper curiosity? In a  2011 study in Cognition, researcher Elizabeth Bonawitz and colleagues at MIT took on this very question.  They had an experimenter show kids a toy with four tubes.  With one group of kids, the experimenter acted as if she'd stumbled upon the toy by accident and didn't know a thing about it saying "I just found this toy!"  After pulling a tube, the toy squeaked and the experimented acted surprised. For the other group of kids, the experimenter brought out the toy as if part of a lesson plan and taught them how to make it squeak minus any spontaneity or surprise. Then the kids in both groups were left with the toy. The good news, all of the kids pulled the first tube but the bad news, the kids in the last group played with the toy for less time and discovered less about the toy. The direct teaching approach limited attempts to learn more about the toy and its hidden features. Hence, here's a lesson in how to make kids less interested and engaged. 

Does traditional teaching make kids less creative too? UC Berkeley neuropsychologist Alison Gopnik and colleagues wondered if traditional teaching would also make kids seek fewer creative solutions and ran a study similar to the one above. This time the experimenter showed 4-year olds a toy that played music and demonstrated a series of actions that either made the toy play or remain silent.  She ran through the same sequences for all kids but for one group she played teacher and for the other, clueless observer ("I wonder how this works?").  When she played stupid kids found the better, shorter ways to get the toy to play.  In contrast, kids in the first group imitated "the teacher" and were less likely to discover the faster solutions. Not only did direct teaching hamper curiosity but also creative new solutions. 

And we're not just talking sapped creative juices here.  This emerging research implicates critical thinking, discovery, curiosity and creativity, in other words, the pursuit of science. Gopnik, author of The Scientist in The Crib, sees kids engaged in play as mini-scientists gathering data, testing hypotheses and making causal inferences.  She argues play-oriented, non-direct learning not only mimics science but promotes scientific thinking.   

Go ahead donate or recycle those flash-cards but this doesn't necessitate discarding all the traditional teaching  just yet.  

True direct teaching provides fast information and facts.  As any third-grade parent knows, there comes a time when kids simply must commit the multiplication table to memory. Curiosity coupled with a healthy number sense and plentiful play with blocks, balloons, cheerios or whatever simply cannot replace knowing 7x8.  There is a time and place for teacher-directed learning even rote memorization.

The debate over traditional teaching versus play or open-ended discovery hardly ends in preschool or even childhood for that matter. The terminology or context may change but plenty of college administrators and employers worry about the lack of curiosity and critical thinking skills among college graduates today. Young adults are going to need all the intellectual curiosity and fortitude they can muster if knowledge is but a click away and getting a job means either inventing one or otherwise putting that knowledge to use in a creative manner. Preschool, in comparison, begin to look like mere child's play.

For more about early academics see my previous post, Debunking Head Start and Early Childhood Interventions.
This post is part of the first ever Evidence-Based Parenting Blog Carnival hosted this month by  Alice Callahan on her blog Science of Mom.  We've gathered up a collection of posts on preschool from a diverse group of bloggers who all, gasp, write about parenting from a scientific perspective. Be sure to check Alice's blog for an eloquent case for evidence-based parenting in addition to a brief summary of the other posts. We're going to make this a regular event, perhaps monthly and are gearing for another carnival the beginning of May. I'll let you know the topic soon.

Here's a list of the carnival posts:
The Early Education Racket (Melinda Wenner Moyer)
Preschool Should Be Less School and More Play? (Momma Data)
Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play! (School of Smock)
Mixed-Age Preschool: Benefits and Challenges (Science of Mom)
Picking a Preschool (Momma, PhD)

Universal Prekindergarten: Evidence from the Field(Six Forty Nine)
What Can We Learn from a Single Preschool Study? (Red Wine and Apple Sauce)
Preschool, Shmeeschool (Fearless Formula Feeder)


geekylabmom said...

Our daughter is in a "playschool" - the kids have activity tables (art, science), and a playground - all activities optional. They have circle time (yes, learn to sit on the rug and not bop the kid next to you), and snack this not how preschool usually is nowadays? I thought that play was how kids learn.

Perhaps we just got really lucky in my choice of school for Emily.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Geekylabmom! All optional play school? You mighta got lucky. Of all the preschools I cruised back in the day never heard tell of such freedom outside of grandma's basement and even there, some enforced reading time. Can I enroll for the fall?

My kids had "choice time" or something to that effect and they went to schools that preached social/emotional development with exception of said Pre-K I hoisted upon my son.

You're right about the value of play - there's a large body of research attesting to the positive benefits of unstructured time.

geekylabmom said...

Bizarre. Yeah, the kids just run around, and the only time they "have" to do something is during circle time. Even snack is optional - some kids wander off to play.

The Fearless Formula Feeder said...

I laughed at your comment about the parent-teacher conference, b/c at my son's first preschool conference, the only piece of valuable information I got from his slightly bemused teacher (she seemed confused as to why she even had to be DOING a parent-teacher conference at this stage) was that my son held his crayon REALLY well.

As I said: preschool, shmeeschool.

Barbara TherExtras said...

Wow. I've got my work cut-out for me! (Reading & commenting) We'll see how far I get while my priority is to detail-plan a trip to our oldest's college graduation.

"young children benefit more from less structured, less academic learning environments where they are free to explore, create and basically solve problems" - sounds like...a description of a home with a full-time parent, perhaps a few siblings of different ages. Just saying.

Also brings to mind the word: Montessori. Which, I believe is a philosophy that children do age out-of for necessarily-structured learning.

From the title: "MORE PLAY"
Play bears definition - which I did in a post on my now mostly-deleted blog. Which brings to mind another philosophy based on indefensibly uncontrolled research: Piaget. However, all subsequent basic science validates that sensory motor learning is basic to cognition and social learning. (For MOST children or within 2 standard deviations of the mean.)

Preschool that!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Barbara, you have a problem with some Swiss guy making conclusions about universal child development based on watching his own kids watch a glass of water on his dining room table?

Them were the days. Then and the Zimbardo prison experiment days. The good old days of psychology.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Play...a general term thrown about in both written and spoken language, including empirical research outcomes. I can think of a number of definitions from the studies I've just looked at including unstructured time, "free-choice" time, child-directed activities, child-initiated activities...

Barbara TherExtras said...

Nah, I've made my peace with Piaget. Emphasis on the fact that his representation of development has been physiologically validated.

I'm agreeable to your definition of play with emphasis on 'initiated' and addition of an motivational drive, or expected sensation, on the order of 'fun' or pleasure. All very difficult to operationally define for a methods section in research. Agree?

Alice Callahan said...

I need to learn more about Montessori and the role of play in early Montessori education. I went to a Montessori school ages 2.5-7, and my comments are based on that experience and talking with my mom (who was an assistant teacher during those same years). I actually remember our time as being very structured. Yes, there was a lot of time in which we had a choice about what we wanted to work on, but the choice was to choose a station, and once there, we were to work with the objects (or whatever) according to how the teacher had shown us. We also weren't allowed to work at a station until we had had a lesson with the teacher on how it worked. For example, there was a rice-pouring station that had several containers for pouring rice back and forth. We were to pour at that station, not dump the rice out and use it to make designs on the tray. That doesn't really sound like free-play to me. That doesn't mean it isn't fun to pour or a good way for a kid to spend some time, but it is rather restricted. I really loved my Montessori experience and I'd consider MOntessori for Cee, but probably not from the young age when I started.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Alice, your early school experience reflects some of the Montessori schools that I visited for my kids. I was surprised by the structure. Although I knew there was strong theory behind Montessori education I never realized how strict some programs could be in implementing it and due to my rebellious inner child I didn't think I as a parent could go along with it. Strong doctrines of any sort make me nervous, even educational ones. That said, there seemed to be a good deal of variation in the schools including one where 3 year-olds sat at tables doing workshops and I could not imagine my very active 2 year-old son sitting there. I can't imagine him not playing with the rice. Your description made me laugh because I used to take my kids to some class in which they stuck their hands in rice and beans and played away. Of course there was a water station too.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Opps...worksheets, not workshops! Not yet!

Barbara TherExtras said...

The Montessori preschool our oldest attended (93-94) was definitely not structured as you described. My recollection is of a semi-organized chaos. It was in Oregon, if that matters.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Semi-organized chaos, fun? Would you choose it again?

Barbara TherExtras said...

Sure, for that child. Probably not for the subsequent child. In fact, didn't but we had moved between.